It says something about Arsenal’s wealth of central-midfield options that, even in the absence of the injured Tomas Rosicky, two players as talented as Dan Crowley and Gedion Zelalem were unable to command a place in the squad for the Emirates Cup over the weekend.
Crowley and Zelalem, given their age, positions and playing style, have been bracketed together since they both signed scholarship terms with the club in 2013, but their involvement with the first-team this pre-season was restricted to a short run-out for both of them against a Singapore Select XI.
Their omission from the Emirates Cup team wasn’t too surprising, with manager Arsene Wenger able to call upon Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere. Indeed, the latter two have often had to operate out wide in recent times just so they can fit into the team.
The Emirates Cup has a history of showcasing young talent, with Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere amongst the players to have announced themselves at the tournament, and the weekend was a particularly memorable one for prodigious wingers Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Alex Iwobi, who claimed an assist and a goal respectively as Arsenal won the trophy for the first time since 2010.
For Crowley and Zelalem, though, the wait for them to impose themselves on the senior set-up goes on. Crowley is yet to represent the senior side competitively, whilst Zelalem, despite some stellar showings in past pre-season fixtures, has only made two substitute appearances.
Both players progressed well last season, making particularly good use of the UEFA Youth League, but their omissions from the squad this weekend will have served as a reminder as to just how difficult it will be for them to make a sustained breakthrough.
Crowley and Zelalem are undoubtedly two of the most talented youngsters currently in Arsenal’s youth system. The latter has attracted criticism at times for some anonymous performances, but he was more heavily involved last season and is also starting to become stronger physically and more tactically aware.
Crowley also has some aspects of his game to improve on, but appears to be the more rounded of the pair at present, which is perhaps why he is already being linked with a loan move for this campaign, with League One side Peterborough United mooted as a possible destination.
That should come as little surprise, with Crowley’s virtuoso performance against Peterborough in the FA Youth Cup in 2013/14 still instantly recallable. The midfielder, who was often used on the left wing last season, is a superb passer of the ball, and a loan spell, playing against experienced players on a regular basis, would help him to develop further and would perhaps precede a senior breakthrough during the 2016/17 campaign.
As for Zelalem, perhaps the United States youth international isn’t ready for a loan spell just yet, on account of his lack of strength. It would probably be better for him to remain with Arsenal’s U21 side for the first half of the season at least, which would enable him to train with the first-team and also possibly feature in the Capital One Cup. A loan spell could follow thereafter.
The long-term question as to how Crowley and Zelalem will fit into the Arsenal first-team picture is very complicated and is not easily answerable at present, with Ramsey and Wilshere also likely to be around for many years to come. This season should provide us with some clues as to how astute Crowley and Zelalem are at adapting to first-team football.